THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART ONE

“Fan” is short for fanatic, and fanatic is synonymous with fundamentalist. Most people associate fundamentalism solely with religion, but this kind of zealotry is hardly confined to beliefs about the afterlife or universal creation. It is a given that partisan politics, opera, and comic books invite rabid fundamentalism. All of these interests have denominational factions (Republican vs. Democrats, Traditionalist vs. Modernists, Marvel vs. DC) and each has their own form of atheism or, more accurately, an imagined conspiracy of atheism, which the various defenders will see as a provocative enemy.

Steel from Man of Steel
2013’s “Man of Steel”

Like evangelical kooks, the majority of fans subscribe to either/or isms. The comparative religious example would be adherents to sola scriptura (in layman’s terms, biblical inerrancy). Approaching ancient sacred texts as a mix of mythology, parable, folklore, poetry, metaphor, and symbology with a sliver of historicity is beyond the fundamentalist’s grasp. That is a choice. To say it is irrelevant whether or not something actually happened is heresy for the fundie; an aesthetic or literary approach to scripture is incomprehensible.

My grad school experience in theology made for some frustrating, but humorous, exchanges. I manifested a classic example of “open mouth, insert foot,” in dialogue with a professor when I unthinkingly referred to the Genesis narrative as a “creation myth.”

Like a bee to honey, a fellow student immediately interrupted: “You don’t believe Adam and Eve existed?”

“Well, being an adult, no I don’t believe snakes talk, the earth is 6,000 years old, or we all came from two people. It’s simply a beautiful myth.”

“Then, you don’t believe in the Bible.”

“Explain to me what you mean by belief, because that is an abstract concept. You can’t touch belief, see it, hear it, or smell it.”

“I don’t have to explain it because you are one of those liberal, existentialist atheists who gives God the finger.”

“No, I am not an atheist. Rather, I am a progressive Catholic existentialist who gives your two-dimensional version of God the finger.”

Because I did not take the Bible at face value (as she obviously did) and because I dared to hint, from a literal perspective, that the Bible was a fallible collection of writings, she assumed I had to be an atheist. From her severe perspective, it was easier to stick me in the box labeled atheist. As the dialogue continued, the student predictably leveled the accusation of “pretension.” It’s the well-worn standby defense crutch of every simpleton—when they fail to grasp something beyond their black or white, either/or point of view, they automatically spew accusations of snobbery, elitism and pretentiousness, which is, in itself, quite pretentious.

Over the last twenty years, we have seen a meteoric rise in films based on Marvel and DC comics. The fanboys react with the same two-dimensional reactions as the ho-de-ho backwoods, sawdust on the floor evangelicals. If a writer dares to critique a film based on one of their characters, the fanboys not only take it as a personal slight, but will band together and chant in unison: “Pretentious art snobs! They don’t even like comic books. They know nothing about the character. They hated the film before they even sat down to watch it. Why would someone pay these people to write reviews? Why would a non-fan even go to this type of movie? Did they even watch the same movie?” The more heated assaults inevitably include personal insults. In one infamous example: outraged fans actually issued death threats to a film critic because he was audacious enough to dislike a Batman film (never mind that he was right). We never see this kind of audience outrage over a dramatic film or a mainstream comedy. This kind of reaction only comes from audiences of religious films (e.g. 2014’s Noah) and audiences of comic book films, which is no coincidence.

My late Jewish grandfather once piped to a proselytizing relative: “The Bible is just a Jewish comic book and you silly Christians take it serious.” The opposite is true as well. Upon a critique of anything featuring their object of adulation, comic book fanatics will become as scandalized as any Bible thumper. Indeed, the reaction of some Marvel/DC extremists to criticisms of films featuring their deities could be comparable to the offense taken by militant Muslims over a published critique of their religion, prophet, etc.

It was not without reason that several evangelical Midwestern churches once advised parishioners to avoid television shows like Superman. It sounded silly as hell in the 1970’s, and it’s even sillier now, but actually the revivalists unwittingly had their finger on the pulse of something. For them, Superman was a fairy tale of a godlike being; and, as we all know, there is only one real Superman, and that’s Jesus! (BTW, I am not kidding. I actually heard this sermon). Never mind that two Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, intentionally created the character utilizing a pious Christ-like mythology. There was indeed a religious-like devotion to this character, who had great strength, flew, had x-ray vision, and wore his underwear outside of his pants. Those tent revival clerics recognized religious devotion when they saw it and, for them, Clark Kent was a serious competitive threat to Jesus. That recognition of competition gave birth to the infamous evangelical comics from nutcase Jack T. Chick.

As a child, I was an avid collector of comics. I had slightly more DC comics than Marvel and I usually gravitated toward franchises that had colorful villains (i.e. Batman, Spiderman, and the Flash). However, the primary reason I collected comics was for the visual artists: Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Frank Robbins, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Mike Ploog, Carmine Infantino, and John Byrne. The comics I remember the most from my adolescence are Kirby’s “Jimmy Olson,” “The Trial of the Flash,” “Captain America and the Falcon”; Neal Adams/Denny O’ Neal’s “Batman,” and”Green Lantern/Green Arrow” miniseries; the “Tomb of Dracula”; the earlier, Ploog-helmed issues of “Werewolf By Night”; a short run series of “The Joker” (which no one else seems to remember); and “Spider-Woman.” Since the artists actually created the books, I followed them far more than I followed their characters. For instance, Mike Ploog’s “Ghost Rider” was chock full of unique atmosphere, as was Frank Robbins’ version of the character. However, Don Heck was such a bland, slipshod artist that when he took over penciling the title, I lost all interest. Later, my approach to film became similar, following directors far more than actors.

Par for the adolescent course, my attentions shifted elsewhere during high school years, leaving a considerable amount of dust on my comic collection. Some twenty years later, I had an opportunity to catch up on that childhood fixation when my nephew asked me to take him to a comic book store. I was disappointed in what I found. I always could tell when a book was penciled by Kirby, Kane, or Robbins; I didn’t even have to look at the credits. The artists’ style was imprinted on everything they touched. By the 1990’s, this was no longer the case. The comics in that store were darker, glossier, and clearly, pencils had gone the way of the dinosaur, in favor of computer illustration. I could not tell one comic artist from the other. Both Marvel and DC had somehow lost their artistic personalities and thus, their originality. In that same field trip to the comic store, I experienced a couple of lessons. Sometimes you get educated in things you do not want to know. As I was thumbing through piles of generic comics, I overheard the two salespersons conversing at the counter. The topic of their discussion was an unidentified male who was mistreating his girlfriend: “She’s the best thing that ever happened to him and he doesn’t even appreciate her.” Without even knowing the boyfriend/husband (?), I was starting to hate him and was feeling a lot of sympathy for the anonymous girl. On and on it went for several minutes until I heard “he should be kicked out of the Green Lantern Corps,” (or, it might have been the Avengers or Justice League. I really don’t recall).

Then, as I was leaving the store, I ran into a fellow student from art school that I had not seen in fifteen years. After we played catch-up, he asked me with fervor, “have you kept up on Iron Man?” It was then that I remembered that he had a religious, proselytizing zeal for Marvel.

“Uh, no.”

“Well, you know, Tony Stark became an alcoholic, man. They did a great issue on that!”

“Oh. Well, I have enough problems of my own now.” We never really related.

Of course, Hollywood has taken the medium of comic books and launched a goldmine, which shows no sign of abating. Some of the films are good, but the successes are outnumbered by failures, which are the average percentages of any film genre or fad.

The closest I have come to “fandom” is (as regular 366 readers are well aware). However, no film is perfect and no filmmaker is infallible. As much as I admire Chaplin’s work, he undeniably made dreadful films, such as Limelight (1952) and A King in New York (1957). Even his certifiable “classics,” are hardly flawless (i.e. City Lights, The Great Dictator, and Monsieur Verdoux). Denial of Chaplin’s flaws inevitably belittles his strengths.

When it comes to screen adaptations of Marvel and DC characters, criticism is not dependent on the “historical accuracy” of a character. Rather, evaluation relies on whether it succeeds as a film. Originality, personal style, and compelling personalities are gauges. There used to be a saying that was much bandied about in art school, “aesthetics only!” The theory was that subject (or lack thereof) was trivial. Aesthetics was the only valid criteria. (There is some truth in that, although it is not always the case. For instance, Diego Riveria had a superior sense of composition that does not exist in the canvases of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Yet, despite her scholarly naiveté, her works are invariably more compelling). Still, the barometer for critiquing a film is predominantly aesthetic and independent of its literary or pulp sources.

The earliest successful films of comic characters arrived in 1941. These were the series of art deco Fleischer Superman cartoons (which ran to 1942 and have yet to be equaled) and in the live action Adventures of Captain Marvel. Numerous film historians and critics rank this as the best of the serials. It is certainly better than those based on Captain America, Batman, and Superman.

Despite the dated, cheesy FX, Superman And The Mole Men (1951), along with random episodes from the first two seasons of the television spinoff “Adventures of Superman,” successfully caught the noirish essence of the Superman radio show. Unfortunately, advertisers demanded the show be toned down, and the series became an embarrassing parody. These features gave us exactly what we hope for from Superman: he combated thinly disguised bigotry and injustice.

In one of the most memorable television episodes, Superman strands two criminals on a mountain (they had discovered his secret identity). He warns them not to try and climb down and to stay put until he figures out what to do with them. Naturally, they attempt a descent and fall to their deaths. When Clark Kent hears the news, his attitude is, “oh, well!”

In another episode, gangsters set out to assassinate Kent. Someone warns that he is a friend to Superman, “I’m more worried about Kent than Superman.” This was the key to George Reeves’ portrayal of the hero. It is no secret that Reeves hated playing a role that today’s actors covet, which inspired him to invest more into the bespectacled reporter alter ego. Reeves may not be the ideal Superman, but he remains the quintessential Kent.

For many, myself included, the apex of fun, celluloid comics remains the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman: The Movie (1966) and the short run TV series (1966 -1968), which followed.

‘s animated “Spiderman” (1968-1970), has rightfully earned its cult status and is a standout in television animation. Wonder Woman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Shazam, and Isis all had live-action television series, with mixed results. Viewing them today, along with 1970’s animated “Batman and Robin” and the “Superfriends,” requires a degree of nostalgia.

Although Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a box office hit, it lacked a worthwhile villain and took its character’s psuedo-Biblical origins far too seriously. Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980) was far superior, with an animated nemesis in Terence Stamp, a colorful femme fatale (Sarah Douglas), and an authentically vulnerable Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve). The series plummeted sharply after that, essentially killing off the superhero genre until the 1989 revival.

Horror maestro Wes Craven made a stab at DC’s Swamp Thing (1982), which retains a limited camp charm, but The Return of Swamp Thing (1989) reached an entirely new nadir.

Upon hearing that had cast in the title role of Batman (1989), the DC Fanboys were screaming for blood and yelling “betrayal.” They only associated Keaton with comedic roles. Apparently, they had not seen Clean and Sober (1988), nor were they willing to consider that the actor’s hyperkinetic, nervous intensity would prove ideal for Bruce Wayne. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses predicting the end of the world, the fanboys were left with egg on their face. Their overreaction was muted by the resulting film, which became a yardstick by which future comic book adaptations are measured. Although not entirely without flaws, Burton’s Batman embraces its comic book origins (unlike the films, which seem embarrassed by them) and yet, it is stamped with Burton’s individuality. Burton’s Batman and, especially, Batman Returns (1992) are akin to comics in which the artist’s personality powerfully shines through formulaic expectations.

(Next week’s column will follow the evolution of the superhero film up to today’s Marvel blockbusters. Tune in next week… same weird time… same weird website!)

2 thoughts on “THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART ONE”

  1. I can’t say superhero/cape comic fans are unique in terms of complaining or even becoming vicious (or even the hamfisted comparisons to religious fanatics…in all honesty the political scene and all its backbiting, petty differences and tedious proselytizing (for both Left and Right) would be a more relevant comparison)…one particularly nasty example will always when, during the 80s, a bunch of Doctor Who fanboys decided to make fun of the death of Colin Baker’s (then current main actor of the show) baby son, linking it with his “bad acting” and actually published it in one of their fanzines.

    Admittedly I have never found or understood the concept of “fandom”. For me, I either like a work or I don’t, and I ain’t willing to form a whole “community” based around a like for said work (though interesting how only certain types of works – usually long-runners, with multiple spin-offs and an emphasis on a whole “world” – tend to attract a “fanbase/fandom” isn’t it? That’s something that’s never been explored…)

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